WHERE MANY ARE COLD BUT FEW ARE FROZEN
There is an old saying among people who’ve spent time in Antarctica: “…your first trip is for the adventure, your second trip is for the money, and your third trip is because you don’t belong any place else in the world…” Having been to “The Ice” for four extended expeditions, I can’t even guess what that implies about who I am or where I belong… I can only attest to the seductive allure and majesty of places Polar – and an intense longing to return to the land of the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis whenever the opportunity arises.
I have had a blessed career, actually a second (or third) career by all measures. As an electrical engineer I had “drearily driven a desk” in corporate America for many years. Later, I was a professor at an engineering college in New Jersey. After a major life change (a whole other story…) I migrated to Dartmouth College in Hanover, NH where I pursued the Doctor of Engineering (D.E.) degree. There, I was introduced to the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL). I was mentored by a researcher at CRREL who encouraged my subsequent research into the use of radar to measure the thickness of snow and ice.
I missed my own graduation ceremony because I was dispatched on a six-week expedition to Antarctica during Austral winter aboard a research icebreaker, the R.V. Palmer. It was one of the first vessels to access the Weddell Sea since Shackelton’s expedition of the early 1900’s. That trip was the clincher – I was hooked! It was my first adventure in Antarctica. I was member of a research crew on an icebreaker during Antarctic winter. On that trip one of the missions of our ship was to pick up a group of scientists who had established a research station on a floating sheet of ice in the Weddell sea, several months earlier. When we reached that site, all on board pitched in to recover the camp. We were joined on the cruise by a Soviet icebreaker that was also picking up scientists from the same camp. I was assigned to help disassemble the camp galley. I was teamed with a group of Soviet scientists for that task. I fondly remember sitting out on the ice floe at 20 below with the Soviets and sharing the last few beers from the galley larder. I really didn’t want to have a “cold one” then and there, but despite our inability to speak or understand the others language, camaraderie and “glasnost” prevailed. Later, we brought a “boom box” out on ice and played Reggae music and danced around to stay warm as we loaded the ship. Our Soviet colleagues just looked on in amusement – crazy Americans!
Since then I have returned to Antarctica an additional three times to traverse the southernmost continent on scientific expeditions. Arctic Alaska and Greenland have been destinations for countless other extended expeditions. There have been numerous other brief research trips to less exotic, but cold and remote regions including the wilds of Montana and the snowy Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Over the years I have collected many photographs, memories and tales – and I am more than willing to share them with my friends and school students.
I spent a month in Alaska, camping on the Gulkana Glacier in the Alaska Range. During that time the Hale-Bop Comet with its tail was clearly visible and accompanied undulating many-colored curtain of the Aurora Borelas. A spectacular sight! I’ve seen herds of caribou on the North Slope of Alaska that literally cover the horizon. I have skimmed over majestic glaciers in helicopters while using a radar to probe the depth of the ice.
I have spent many memorable holidays in remote Arctic and Antarctic locations. One Easter in Deadhorse, Alaska, I had dinner with several oil roughnecks, Alaska State Troopers, an Inuit family and a well-known mountain guide who were guests in the lodge where I was staying. It was a scene right out of “Northern Exposure”. Imagine Easter – with snow everywhere -- with no Easter flowers – and at 20 below!
I have spent two very different Thanksgivings in Antarctica. One year, I sat down to Thanksgiving dinner in a dining hall tent with a group of a dozen men and woman – the only other people for 800 miles in any direction! The food, including turkey and all the traditional fixings were flown in for us several days in advance. It was a wonderful day of feasting, singing, and friendship. Another year I shared Thanksgiving dinner with 1200 of my “closest friends” at McMurdo Station on t he coast of Antarctica. Again we had turkey and all the fixings. A call went out on the base’s radio station looking for a CD of Arlo Guthrie’s classic Thanksgiving song: “Alice’s Restaurant”. As it turned out I had packed a copy of that CD among others I had brought along for my own entertainment. It was the only copy of “Alice” on the Antarctic continent as nearly as we could tell. The radio station played the song several times during that day for the enjoyment of all.
One Christmas and New Years was spent out on the Ross Ice Shelf. I was acting as a crevasse detector for a group attempting to pioneer a new route from McMurdo to the South Pole. Deep snows made traveling very difficult that year, but the seven of us did stop to celebrate both holidays. A package of candy, cookies and holiday cheer prepared by some of our friends back in McMurdo was flown in during a routine resupply. Those goodies re ally cheered up our little group.
The trips haven’t been all romance… There have been many mornings waking up in a tent in a frost-covered sleeping bag with frozen boots nearby. Too many times having to answer the “call of nature”, half naked under God’s great sky – with bone-chilling winds whipping about. Too many times where fingers and toes cease to feel. Too many meals of steaming glop eaten wearing mittens while hunkered down out of the wind behind a snow block wall. But, you know, I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything!
Spending time in remote locations with small groups or researchers, I became a wilderness emergency medical technician (WEMT). Fortunately, the worst emergency I have had to treat to date was a fellow who broke a tooth eating corn chips at Byrd Surface Camp in Antarctica. I was able to convince him to evacuate from the field for treatment on the last scheduled flight from that remote location for a month! A continuing passion for ham radio from back in my high school days enabled communication from many remote locations to family and friends back home.
Not all my time has been spent in the wild. I have had lots of time to work in the laboratory, to patent inventions, to write journal articles, a book on Snow Shelter Construction, and play close to home, but the allure and call of the wild and polar regions is very hard to resist.
A love of the Arctic, Antarctic, and other places remote and wild have merged into my recreation activities. I have learned to mountaineer, winter camp backcountry ski, Telemark ski, snowshoe and build snow shelters. Through the serendipity and coincidence the interest in snow shelter construction has become an avocation. For the last 13 years I have been conducting workshops throughout New England in the art of building Igloos and other snow structures. Without exaggeration, over those years, I have entertained and taught several thousand people the skill. When the season permits, I can be found sea kayaking, hiking, and mountain biking.
"...There’s the land. (Have you seen it?)
It’s the cussedest land that I know,
From the big, dizzy mountains that screen it
To the deep, deathlike valleys below.
Some say God was tired when He made it;
Some say it’s a fine land to Shun;
Maybe; but there’s some as would trade it
For no land on earth – and I’m one.”
The winter! The brightness that blinds you,
The white landlocked tight as a drum,
The cold fear that follows and finds you.
The silence that bludgeons you dumb.
The snows that are older than history,
The woods where the weird shadows slant;
The stillness, the moonlight,the mystery,
I’ ve bade ‘em good-by – but I can’t”
There’s a land where the mountains are nameless,
And the rivers all run God knows where;
There are lives that are erring and aimless
And deaths that just hang by a hair;
There are hardships that nobody reckons;
There are valleys unpeopled and still;
There’s a land – oh, it bekons and bekons,
And I want to go back – and I will."
(From: “The Spell of the Yukon” by Robert Service)
Cheers and warm thoughts,